BILLINGS – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has drawn on a wide-ranging alliance of loggers and outfitters, environmentalists and business interests to push legislation creating Montana’s first new wilderness in more than 25 years.
But the Democrat has yet to land the support of the state’s sole member of the House, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
As Rehberg tours the state this week to gauge public support for the measure, observers say where the Republican comes down could either help seal Tester’s biggest legislative achievement since his 2006 election — or put up a major roadblock to the bill’s success.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats enjoy a wide enough advantage to roll over Republicans if they want. Yet analysts say that could extract a high political toll if they do so with Tester’s bill, which he touts as a compromise between competing interests.
“The way that Rehberg votes on it in the House really doesn’t matter,” said Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University-Billings. “But it’s going to matter at home.”
Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is now before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It would create more than 600,000 acres of wilderness, mostly in southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, while opening 100,000 acres to logging over the next decade.
It also designates more than 330,000 acres of new recreation, protective or special management areas. Those would largely preserve existing ATV and snowmobile access at a time when federal land managers are steadily clamping down on such activities.
U.S. Forest Service officials have said the amount of logging mandated under the bill may be unsustainable. In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, it would boost timber harvests to levels not seen since the early 1970s, according to the WildWest Institute, a Missoula-based conservation group.
But in Montana, opposition has been largely limited to the far ends of the spectrum — environmentalists who want more sweeping protections for wild places and off-road vehicle advocates worried they will lose their forested playgrounds. The bill has support from former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, and such diverse groups as the Montana Wood Products Association and Montana Wilderness Association.
A Rehberg stance against would instantly lend a mainstream voice to the critics on the right.
In an interview, Tester acknowledged the Republican has the power to “steam up some additional folks out there.”
But Tester added that he will be looking for “any way to get it passed” once the bill moves out of committee, including rolling it into a large omnibus bill that would have support for passage beyond Montana.
“I would welcome Rep. Rehberg’s endorsement of the bill,” Tester said. “It can go forward without him.”
A first glimpse into where Rehberg might stand came on Dec. 28, when he hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss what he called Tester’s “wilderness bill” — a term Tester has pointedly avoided.
Like Tester, Rehberg emphasized the need to strike a balance between the environment and jobs. But the Republican also talked about “fixing” Tester’s bill and questioned whether it would open enough forest to logging.
“If I think there’s not the unanimity we’ve been led to believe,” he said, “we’ll make the decision about whether this legislation can pass as it exists.”
The last homegrown attempt to create new wilderness in Montana was in 1988.
That bill from former Sen. John Melcher, a Democrat, passed Congress but was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Republican Conrad Burns capitalized on the dissent the bill stirred to push Melcher out of office that fall. Rehberg became Burns’ state political director.
Further complicating the political landscape on Tester’s bill are rumors that Rehberg could challenge the Democrat in the 2012 election, said MSU-Billings’ Wilson.
If that’s the case, Rehberg could seek to put his own stamp on the legislation by negotiating a compromise with Tester. That would neutralize the Democrat’s potential political gain.
Alternatively, Rehberg could dig in against — and exploit the issue — to emphasize their political differences.
“Whether or not it’s a good piece of legislation, there might be political gains to be made there,” said Robert Saldin, a political analyst from the University of Montana.
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